IKEA’s unauthentic concept of sustainability

The Risk-Monger lives about one kilometre from one of those monster yellow and blue box warehouses famous for tempting large populations with the pleasures of cheap, disposable furniture. While he understands and appreciates the great marketing and finance expertise (not to mention controlling a more than efficient supply chain), he has issues with the IKEA PR machine that pretends that the behemoth legitimately commits to sustainability.

What pushed me to take aim at the one place in Belgium where I could get a breakfast for one euro? Recently I visited my neighbourhood IKEA as I had decided to change the light fixture in my bathroom (after 45 years, the present one was giving me problems). I found a cleverly designed LED fixture for €39.99. I was reassured by the publicity that said it was a green, low-energy consumption product (I could even pay for it with the famous Belgian “eco-cheques” introduced to get me to consume more, but in an “environmentally reassuring” way).

The problem with this fixture (to be attached to the wall) was that it was, itself, disposable. When I looked at the bulb, it was not a standard type that could be replaced. Hardly – this LED “bulb” was screwed in with a special hold that screamed: “Don’t change me; just throw the whole thing away in a couple years!” The instruction manual even admitted that the bulb was not to be replaced. How could this possibly merit an eco-reduction that would get me to feel good about my consumption?

Oh sure, the bulb is guaranteed to last 10,000 hours “under normal circumstances” (assuming no power surges or fluctuations, no frequently turning lights on and off …), but since I am told it uses so little energy, most of us will not worry so much if it is just left on.  So instead of 45 years for a fixture, I will be forced to buy a new one in three to four years tops (how much CO2 and resources go into making and recycling light fixtures compared to using a couple more light bulbs?). I am not against LED lighting (actually the technology is quite interesting), but rather I feel that shops like IKEA need to accept that, although it is less profitable, it is far more sustainable to be selling bulbs rather than disposable fixtures.

This is the twisted logic of IKEA’s “Sweden = environmental puritan” philosophy. We are Swedish and we love the environment so you can trust us (TetraPak tries the same high-octane sustainability self-legitimisation and they too are anything but!). But the more I examine IKEA’s sustainability claims, the more irritated I become (almost as much as that poor sod trying to stuff his new disposable kitchen into his Toyota Prius). So after I put back the disposable “green” light fixture, I started to wander around the aisles holding a microscope to IKEA’s green PR hypocrisy.

They talk about how they are reducing energy and promoting the use of renewables, and then I find the cheap TV section, with dozens of flat-screen TVs running, blasting enough heat to kick in the air conditioning (in January!). I suppose, at this price, I could pick up an extra TV to warm my kitchen. OK, I don’t really need one, but why not ?

How to over-report on your under-sustainability (in 98 pages)

IKEA, if anything, is a contradiction through and through. Their 2012 Sustainability Report played up IKEA’s commitment to sustainable wood and cotton, but the numbers are pathetic – only 22.6% of the wood they use is certified and as for their use of cotton, only 34% comes from “preferred cotton” sources (although kudos that they did not try to use the “organic” cotton lie so frequently touted in other corporate brand PR). When you look at most of the wood products IKEA has on offer, it is often particle board (laminated compressed wood and chemical resins) – hardly recyclable or sustainable, but rather inexpensive. It is shameful that WWF does not criticise them at all (… OK, the Risk-Monger has already established how NGOs like WWF can be bought). Instead key directors from WWF and Greenpeace endorsed the report (p 13).

One of the most astonishing statements from IKEA’s 2012 sustainability report is that in the next year, they intend to start measuring the progress on the sustainability of their products (p 16). In other words, as far as CSR is concerned, until now, they have not tried to measure the real impact – no GRI, no benchmarks to show they have actually made progress … just a lot of PR. I wonder how disposable light fixtures will fare in such a measurement, were it ever to be performed to accepted CSR reporting standards. They have an internal sustainability scorecard (p 40) that they are developing for some of their products. With a top score of 400, the average sustainability ranking of the products they have chosen to test is 89/400 … and that is internal, mind you! If your internal report card gave you a grade of 22%, would you do a 98 page sustainability report to stroke your ego? Seriously, has anybody else read this nonsense? Clearly Greenpeace and WWF did not before endorsing it. That no CSR groups have ever held IKEA to the same sustainability standards as other retailers is inexplicable.

What I find amusing is that towards the end of their 2012 Sustainability Report (p 93), they declare that they used the GRI as a “guide when compiling this report” … so I guess that is OK then.

A self-interested charity?

The best attest to this sustainability contradiction is that IKEA is not even a company. Founded by one of Europe’s richest men, Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA has a rather shady structure. In order to avoid paying taxes and giving its due back to society, IKEA formed itself into a non-profit based in the Netherlands (Europe’s friendliest country for non-profit frauds). Actually, truth be told, it is a complex web of three foundations and other murky organisations, also in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. So rather than paying taxes (or even having to report profits) to support the local infrastructures IKEA so depends on (most big box locations are outside of urban areas needing special roads and services), they scavenge off of the state, pay low wages and knock small businesses out of the market. Screw corporate responsibility!

Sounds despicable until IKEA’s PR machine kicks in and tries to paint blue and yellow as the colours of charity. As a non-profit, they give a nominal amount to groups like UNICEF and other, mostly UN, agencies or for projects managed by WWF and then fold the rest (all unreported) into building a bigger personal and commercial empire. I sometimes wonder how UNICEF or WWF feel about receiving this “blood money”.

There is a limit on how high one’s PR can float above reality before the contradictions bring it down. For the Risk-Monger, it was the €40 disposable light fixture bathed in green colours. Others may find LED cool so they don’t think about the waste. I know many are attracted to their “paper over plastic” approach, choosing to ignore the immense amount of paper wasted in their famous but senseless flat-packaging because they have fooled themselves into thinking that paper can be recycled infinitely without ensuing environmental costs (like energy use or wastewater?). None of us seem to consider their societal irresponsibility as a reason not to shop there (so perhaps unashamed tax dodging is a good corporate strategy).

The Gauntlet of Temptation

Don’t get me wrong – if you really need to buy something for the house, and you don’t like throwing money away, IKEA is the place to go. But once you enter, you are subjected to their consumeristic strategy, which I find, quite bluntly, very offensive. Before getting to the light fixture section, I was made to walk the “Gauntlet of Temptation”, repeatedly given ‘in situ’ images to attract me into buying items I don’t need and had never considered before entering their emporium. “Hmmm, after seeing it so many times today, maybe I should get those LED lights I could stick onto the back of my new flat-screen TV. I don’t need them, but now I want them!” From a marketing strategy, these tricks are brilliant; from an ethical perspective, less so.

So why do so many love IKEA and choose not to look at the obvious? Consumerism is about feeling good about yourself. We generally consume out of boredom, to amuse ourselves and to reinforce a self-esteem that is otherwise battered by the “You Suck! if you don’t buy my product” marketing strategy. We are rarely critical (most often completely blind) about totally unsustainable products or activities that we like (driving cars, eating meat, drinking Nespresso …) choosing to attack things we don’t like and feel we can live without (chemicals, banks, energy companies, Walmart…).

We like the cheap chic at IKEA, so we want to believe that they are sustainable. We let them pretend in their reports, and we pretend to read them. But the bottom line is that most everything about IKEA – from its disposable furniture mentality to its CSR non-reporting practices, waste of resources and tax-dodging mindset – all of this totally reeks of unsustainability. If we were authentic in our assessment, we would campaign to boycott them (… but then I’d have no TV in my kitchen).

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The Risk-Monger would like to apologise for the gap in his blogs. January was a tough month with exams and a few personal projects. A reminder for those interested in smaller risk-bits, I comment fairly regularly on the outrageous fact-free claims found on social media. You can follow more satire in small doses at https://www.facebook.com/riskmonger.

 

6 Responses to IKEA’s unauthentic concept of sustainability »»

  1. Comment by David Muscat | 2014/02/10 at 13:00:36

    Dear Risk Monger: Your thoughts are totally in tune with mine, but they – IKEA – are not alone with their self-effacing self-centred ego trips on THEIR PERCEPTIONS OF BEING GREEN (or whatever that means!) as
    SAINSBURY
    TESCO,
    WALMART (ASDA IN THE UK,)
    B and Q (Ever Heard of Them?)
    WAITROSE (JOHN LEWIS PARTNERSHIPS ALLEGEDLY THE BEST SUPERMARKET CHAIN IN THE UK,)
    JOHN LEWIS PARTNERSHIP,
    MARKS AND SPENCER (ALWAYS SAID THAT THEY WOULD ONLY SELL GOODS FROM REPUTABLE SOURCES, SUCH AS THE FACTORY THAT BURNT DOWN IN BANGLADESH FOR WHICH THEY WERE INDIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR KILLING HUNDREDS OF CHILDREN,)
    THE ARMY AND NAVY STORES,
    CARREFOR (FRANCE,)
    BHS (REMEMBER THEM? THEY STILL EXIST!)
    and Many Many Others.
    Whenever we read about the so-called developments you highlighted here we have to repeat what we saw in SAINSBURY at Christmas Time when they were selling a similar fitting using, LED bulbs, which was for sale at less than UK Sterling £10-00 which they admitted was made in China and could not be replaced even under their guarantee as the system was flawed with unsatisfactory reports. They had had 200 or more returned to them because they had broken and the light bulbs had burnt out and cracked emitting noxious gases to the atmosphere.
    Now we have the situation which is even worse where the Fluorescent Light Bulbs that were given away by the Electrical Energy Companies (made by Philips and GE and Others) have now reached 12 months old and they are failing to deliver any light because their internal workings are faulty and the purchasers (the Public) are now not knowing what to do with them. When we returned some of these to B and Q they took them off our hands – dutifully compensated us for them – and threw them in to their waste bins where they immediately broke causing immense harm to their ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY as well as CREATING A HAZARD TO THE LOCAL AREA.
    This fraudulent creation of ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES by IKEA (and OTHERS) extends beyond their vision through to their general products as well. You cited the COMPRESSED FIBRE-BOARD forgetting to cite the fact that they use BISPHENOL RESINS in the matrix which are known to be one of the most Carcinogenic Materials to Mankind and Animals and which were recently cited as being a more severe potential for harming the basic genetics of animals than DIOXINS! You also forget to mention that the very adhesive resins used to bond their furniture together also includes such materials.
    However, also remember that the FURANS and POLYMERIC RESINS and CHEMICALS USED IN THEIR CARPETS (IN PARTICULAR) EXUDE HORRENDOUS ODOURS AROUND THAT SECTION OF THEIR SHOPS and that these ARE KNOWN TO BE CANCEROUS AT A RATE COMPARABLE WITH SMOKING!
    The are others that also pervade the other shops and Stores which we come across. What about the TETRA-PACK PACKAGING? Have you ever thought what was contained in the internal coating and whether it was harmful to Humans? Go and ask them what they use and then ask them whether it has been tested for all the current listed emissions and leaching issues? Their answers ought to be published.
    There are also then the issues you raise with IKEA and its COMMERCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY ACROSS THE EU. We are sure that most people using their stores in the UK and Ireland are not aware that out of their enormous turnover (MILTON KEYNES HAS A STORE THAN TURNS WELL OVER €100 MILLION A YEAR, THE ONE IN READING PROBABLY AS MUCH AGAIN! (AND THE OTHERS SUCH AS THOSE IN BELGIUM PROBABLY MORE AGAIN!) AND FOR A COMPAnY THAT IS THE WEALTHIEST IN THE WORLD TO PAY NO CORPORATE TAXES IN ANY OF THE COUNTRIES IT WORKS IN OR COLLECTIVELY THIS NEEDS EXPOSING.
    TO PUT IT IN A NUTSHELL, THIS COMPANY TURNS OVER MORE THAN €29 BiILLION PER YEAR – A TOTAL THAT MIGHT EVEN BE LARGER THAN SOME RELATIVELY LARGE OTHER COMPANIES ALREADY QUOTED HERE – BUT PaYS JUST €500 MILLION IN TAXES.
    THIS IS A FARCE AND THE EUROPEAN UNION NEEDS TO GET A HANDLE ON THIS.

  2. Comment by The Risk Monger | 2014/02/10 at 22:59:54

    Thanks David for the extra information – there is just so much hypocrisy here that there is not enough space within a single blog. For the compressed wood, I feel sorry for the innocent people who chop them up and toss them in their fireplace – it used to be that we sold furniture when we didn’t need it anymore. For Tetra, I need to consider another blog – how can they dare call these bricks recyclable or “nature’s packaging”. Indeed, it is not just a Swedish disease, but their levels of hypocrisy on the environment is legendary – whenever I am in Sweden I cannot help but be impressed with their love of the car (although they commit themselves to being “chemical-free” – go figure).
    What got my curiosity as that we accept nonsense claims of sustainability without critical assessment if we really like the product, company or service (and those companies we don’t like … well, they could never be trusted so we hammer away at any little point). IKEA is one example (I am sure the consultants who crafted their sustainability report must still be howling at how easy it was to snowjob everyone … including Greenpeace and WWF) – we want to look the other way when Foxconn denies access to their sites (except for the nets around their dormitories) because we want to believe our Apple products are ethically sourced. The Nespresso line was an inside joke – a friend of mine and I were standing around a Nespresso machine and we both agreed that those capsules were totally unsustainable. Yes, but the coffee is to die for … so who is going to hold it to Nestle or George Clooney? That moment got me started on this idea of selective criticism and sustainability bias. IKEA seemed a richer subject for this assessment … also, I could not imagine a day beginning without a Volluto (yes, I too am a hypocrite!).

  3. Comment by evad666 | 2014/02/11 at 06:05:23

    Self interested hypocrisy is the new eu commission competence haven’t you realized?
    Looks like IKEA is being targeted like Somerset farmers are.

  4. Sue
    Comment by Sue | 2014/02/11 at 10:32:11

    100% agree with this good denounciation of corporate hypocrisy – environmental protection cannot be a product. Thanks Risk Monger, nice surprise.

  5. Comment by The Risk Monger | 2014/02/11 at 12:22:23

    Thank you Sue, Evad, for your comments. Hypocrisy is often tied to bias. In response to an earlier comment, I coined the term “sustainability bias” – I think I need to do some more work to develop this idea (also at the political level).

  6. Mel
    Comment by Mel | 2014/02/27 at 15:07:17

    Wow. This is a serious eye opener. Definitely going to be taking a read of what IKEA have published, regarding their CSR. They should be leading the way. Oh and I don’t think people sell their IKEA furniture because of its nature. Is it worth selling on?
    We feel strongly about sustainability and after reading this, we’re going to look at more ways of shouting about our honest efforts a little louder.

    Looking forward to reading more about your ‘sustainability bias’ thoughts. Interesting term you’ve coined. Some scope there, definitely.


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David believes that hunger, AIDS and diseases like malaria are the real threats to humanity – not plastics, GMOs or pesticides. Sadly while these debates get sillier and more scarce resources get diverted into building green temples, more people die of real diseases. more.



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